The Torah portion this week is titled Noach. It covers from the time of Noach, through the narrative of the Tower of Babel and then it lists a series of names ending up with Abraham and Sarah. The greatest amount of space in this section, in fact several chapters are devoted to Noach and the Flood. I would suggest that there are two matters that are take home lessons in these multiple verses.
The first point is that when Noach is introduced to us he is termed “a righteous man” – in Hebrew a tzadiq. The Torah then says, he was blameless in his age.
Hundreds of years later, after the close of the Bible’s covers, the early rabbis pondered what this meant. Yes, he was righteous. Yet, they ask, was he truly righteous, or was he righteous only in comparison to his age? In short, would he be considered righteous today, or was he only the best example of a pretty miserable lot of people? Was the bar set so low that he looked good, or even very good, but his contemporaries were so awful that his righteousness did not set a very high standard?
With respect offered to my ancient colleagues, I think that they asked the wrong question. It really is irrelevant if, compared to another standard at another time, that Noach may not have been regarded as such a sterling character. Noach lived when he lived. He interacted with those around him at that time. To compare Noach to a different time and place is to compare apples to onions.
The take home lesson for us is simple: we need to judge ourselves by what can be reasonably achieved in our time, in our community, in our world. We do not live in the past, and we certainly do not live in the future. Conditions in the past were what they were. Times change. Demography changes. Economics change. Family patterns change. Social connections change. What was is no more. We can be nostalgic or not, but we will not recreate the past. We live in a different world. To deny this is to promote unrealistic expectations. Likewise, to imagine a rosy future is nice, but we will be better served if we judge ourselves by what can be reasonably achieved in our time, in our world.
The second take home lesson for us is about the length of the flood. Did the Flood last forty days, or was it one hundred fifty days? Both numbers appear several times in this narrative. Forty days is well over a month. One hundred fifty days is approaching five to six months. It cannot be both. Or can it? I think it can be both. It depends on your perspective of what you mean by the Flood. For some it might mean the actual days of rainfall, which might have been forty days. For others, it might have been how long the earth was inhabitable, how long did it take for the waters to finally recede so that the land was not waterlogged? The take home point is that there may be more than one valid answer to a question, depending on how you are looking at the issue in front of you.
As in so many matters, the correct evaluation might not be ‘my way’ or ‘your way’ but that there is room for an approach that says both/and; it need not say ‘either/or’.
In the meantime, Living realistically in the present, and not making unrealistic comparisons to the past (or to the future) is one important lesson. Realizing that there are multiple ways of looking at something is a second important take home lesson. May they serve as learning tools for us, that we, too, may be considered righteous in our age.
Rabbi David J. Zucker, PhD, served as Rabbi at North West Surrey Synagogue from 2014-2017. He publishes in a variety of areas. His latest book is The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (with Moshe Reiss – 2015).